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New James Nesbitt TV drama Bloodlands delves into our Troubled past

Bloodlands is a contemporary TV crime thriller series with one foot in Northern Ireland's emotive past. Jenny Lee finds out more from the female leads Charlene McKenna and Lisa Dwan, who star opposite James Nesbitt

James Nesbitt as Tom Brannick and Charlene McKenna as Niamh McGovern in Bloodlands. Picture by Steffan Hill

THE legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past is explored in a new BBC crime drama coming to our screens this weekend. Police collusion and the disappeared are amongst the subjects alluded to amidst the fictional drama in Bloodlands, which has human relationships, loss and the fragility of peace at its centre.

James Nesbitt leads the cast as police detective Tom Brannick, who is on the hunt for a legendary serial killer known as Goliath. The four-part thriller, which is executive produced by Jed Mercurio, the brains behind Line of Duty and Bodyguard, sees Brannick re-open the 20-year-old investigation after a possible suicide note is found in an abandoned car in Strangford Lough.

The case is of enormous personal significance to Brannick, whose own wife was kidnapped and never found, but his desire for closure could jeopardise the hard-won peace of present-day Northern Ireland.

Starring alongside Nesbitt as DS Niamh McGovern is Charlene McKenna, best known for her roles in Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the 36-year-old says it's an experience she "thoroughly enjoyed".

"It is quite rare that this subject matter is tackled, for obvious reasons. We took our approach to this subject and the drama quite seriously, but at the same time had a balanced professional laugh off camera.

"It was so lovely to work at home again and to make such a proper, intense, emotional drama."

Bloodlands was written by emerging talent Chris Brandon, who grew up in the Co Down village of Strangford – one of its key filming locations. The stunning but remote Strangford Lough islands and the unpredictable Irish weather contributed to the challenge of shooting the series, which happened last winter just before Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the world.

"We had gale force winds, snow, ice, storm Charlie, storm Dennis and the rest of them. We were literally getting blown down and bumping into each other. What could you do only laugh?

"We were on filming Islands with no toilets or food. We would see them coming with them on the back of the speedboat, but then the wind was too high and they couldn't land. You would be bursting to go to the toilet and then you would see them sailing away again, which was so torturous," she giggles.

McGovern grew up on the Co Monaghan border and, although not directly affected by the Troubles, she has many memories of bomb scares, check-points and the uneasy atmosphere at the time – something she says has helped her step into her role in Bloodlands.

"With Niamh being from a similar background and upbringing, I felt we shared some common DNA, so I felt ready to play her."

On set, she was grateful to have PSNI and forensic consultants to advise on technicalities, police communication and, in her words, "to help with any questions – stupid or intelligent – we had".

It is 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement, but the impact of the Troubles is still felt across the country. Thus, Bloodlands is sure to provoke some strong responses from viewers.

"When I was reading the script I did think 'how are my parents are going to react to this?' and 'what dialogue will follow?'," admits Charlene.

"But we have to remember that, whilst it's got the legacy of the Troubles within its storyline, it is a drama and not anyone's specific story."

This is a view shared by her Bloodlands co-star Lisa Dwan, who plays doctor Tori Matthews.

"Of course it is set in reality, but it's a human story, and you never get the sense that the writer has a particular bias on any of this because every single character is torn inside with a genuine desire for a preservation of peace and a desire for justice at the same time."

Carlow-born Lisa, who is based in London, also believes that viewers outside Ireland will be impressed by both the storyline and the Northern Ireland landscape depicted in the series.

"I think people will be blown away by the genuine beauty of it. I had no idea how stunning the Mourne Mountains and Strangford Lough were. I totally fell in love with Belfast when I was there and would go back and film there in a heartbeat," enthuses the 43-year-old.

Tori's character also teaches at Queen's University, where Brannick's doctor is a medical student. She describes Tori as "smart, inquisitive and resourceful with a painful past".

Having watched a preview of episode one and seen the glimmer of a spark between Tori and Brannick, I quiz her if we will see the pair become romantically involved.

"It's impossible to act opposite Jimmy Nesbitt without a little spark," she laughs.

James Nesbitt as Tom Brannick in Bloodlands

"All will be revealed. There are many reasons why Tori Matthews has returned back to Belfast, largely her mother, but also there is a personal journey that she goes on which unfolds throughout this series."

Both actresses are crime drama fans themselves, Charlene puts the current popularity of the genre down to our current oppressive times living through a global pandemic.

"The human nature is dying to explore the darker side of all our psychological complexities from the comfort of their own couches."

And whilst she may be tempted by another on-screen police role in the future, in reality Charlene has definitely ruled out a radical change in career.

"When we fight my husband says I'm forensic in how I argue. I would be good at that bit, but as fun as it was to walk around and fill myself with that persona, I'm nowhere near tough enough emotionally."

And would both actresses like to return for another series of Bloodlands?

"It would be wonderful because we had such a good time shooting it," says Charlene.

"Who knows in this industry? I'm just really proud to have been part of this, to work on such a great script with so many great artists," adds Lisa, who is currently filming a new series of the BBC crime drama series Top Boy.

"I'm so grateful to be working. When I flew home after Bloodlands at the end of February, I was the only one wearing a mask on the plane. Who knew it was going to come to this?

"But it's amazing how adaptable we all are. I love how Covid has thrown a lot of convention out the window and produced so many creative responses. People would have said in the past 'that's not what we do', but now if we wanted to do anything we'd have to throw the rule book out the window."

Charlene is currently filming Peaky Blinders and likewise has been impressed by the response to Covid restrictions within the film industry.

"The production is period and the cast and crew are enormous. To see a machine like that so well-oiled now for Covid, with colour-coded crews and all-sorts is unbelievable," adds Charlene, who is missing hugs when off set.

"We all feel very grateful to be back working, but roll on the vaccine and getting back to hugs and dinners together," she adds.

:: Bloodlands commences Sunday February 21 at 9pm on BBC One. Also available on BBC iPlayer.

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